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Israel's Blue and White party splits as Gantz elected Knesset speaker

Party that beat Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud in latest election dissolves after chairman offers to join rival's government
Leader of Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, at a polling station earlier this month during Israel's third election in a year (Reuters)

Israel's Blue and White party dissolved on Thursday after party chairman Benny Gantz nominated himself to become the new speaker of the Knesset and join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in government.

Blue and White edged past the 60-seat threshold in the country's third election in a year, held earlier this month, and had been tasked to form a government, but had so far been unable to do so.

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Gantz's offer to serve as Knesset speaker on Thursday, however, shocked supporters who backed the party as the best chance of ending Netanyahu's leadership.

Hours later, the ex-military chief was elected to the role, winning the speakership with a 74-18 vote.

Soon after Gantz announced his nomination, the three parties that comprised the Blue and White alliance - Hosen L'Israel, Yesh Atid and Telem - decided to go their own ways.

The alliance's co-leaders - former finance minister Yair Lapid and former defence minister Moshe Yaalon - filed a request to keep their factions, Yesh Atid and Telem, as one party under the name Blue and White, Haaretz reported. 

Lapid reportedly told a Blue and White WhatsApp group that Gantz had "decided to crawl into Netanyahu's government" and Yaalon accused Gantz of committing political suicide, according to the Jerusalem Times.

Yousef Jabareen, a Knesset member with the Joint List, which backed Blue and White to unseat Netanyahu despite disagreeing over many of the party's positions, said that Gantz had shown his true colours.

"Gantz adoped extreme rightwing positions during his campaign, including support for a 'Jewish majority' and settlement annexation," Jabareen said in a statement. "He has now demonstrated that he is a clone of Netanyahu."

Bolstering annexation?

Gantz's self-nomination came a day after Yuli Edelstein, the outgoing speaker of the parliament and a Likud party member close to Netanyahu, resigned after refusing to implement a Supreme Court ruling that a vote be held to elect a new speaker.

It was the latest turn in a year of political upheaval, including three inconclusive elections, and now the coronavirus, which has seen Netanyahu and his allies impose controversial measures to prevent its spread.

One measure included shutting down the country's courts just ahead of the scheduled start of the prime minister's corruption trial. Netanyahu authorised using surveillance measures to monitor those suspected of being infected.

Before his surprise offer on Thursday, Gantz had been expected to gather lawmakers to oust Edelstein and elect a new speaker.

'I don’t understand. I have no idea what happened. All of the cards were in Gantz’s hands'

- Meron Rapoport, Israeli journalist

Veteran Israeli journalist and political analyst Meron Rapoport said that he was left in shock.

“I don’t understand. I have no idea what happened. All of the cards were in Gantz’s hands,” Rapoport told Middle East Eye. “This is the biggest betrayal by Gantz to the people who voted for him.”

While details about what led to Thursday’s dramatic turn remain unknown, Rapoport said he believed that the underlying factor was Gantz’s unwillingness to share power with the Joint List.

“Forming a government with the support of the Joint List, if that happened, would have been so historic and dramatic,” he said. “They couldn’t approve it, they couldn’t accept it. And that’s why it failed.”

Once the dust settles around the political upheaval and the coronavirus, Rapoport said he thinks the biggest impact of Blue and White's demise will be to bolster Netanyahu's push to annex the occupied West Bank.

"It will be impossible for Gantz to stop annexation if Netanayhu wants to do it," he said. "That’s what coming next, especially if Trump is elected again."

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